Doctor Steven Leftfield was at the top of his profession. Sadly, it was a profession with an unusually low ceiling.
He checked a final third time over his work, not that anything ever went wrong, not that anything ever really could go wrong. He glanced up briefly, just to make sure that his junior colleague was paying attention. He wasn’t, as usual.
“Lucas, were you watching, did you see what I just did?” he asked accusingly, his expression betraying his frustration with everything in his life.
Lucas flashed him an insincere smile, “You seem to have plugged a simulation-pad to the back of the skull of a completely anaesthetised man. My guess is that you’ll now switch it on so he’ll experience the virtual reality simulation. It’s hardly rocket-science, Mr Leftfield!”
He opened his mouth to growl some angry retort but stopped himself. Unfortunately, Lucas was quite right; his job had become easy, far too easy. Lucas had no doctorate, no formal training and showed no sign that he had any ability much beyond that of a trained chimpanzee. He didn’t need any either.
“I mean I get it that things were different in your day.” Lucas turned away, not even deeming to look him in the eyes. “It’s just that virtual reality is common now. It’s easy, we just put the pad on the back of his neck and he thinks whatever we show him is real! My grandmother could do this. Actually she does, every night.”
He wasn’t wrong but he felt that his trainee had largely missed the point.
“Lucas, this man is a criminal,” he checked his portable terminal for the unpleasant details. “He killed his own brother. He murdered him with a metal pipe and then tried to make it look like a burglary. This is a very bad man and he deserves the very harshest of punishments.”
Lucas peered down at the subdued criminal. He looked painfully ordinary laying there, harmless even. “So? I guess I know more about computers than I do about people. He looks ordinary to me.”
“So?” Steven huffed in annoyance. In a few more years, there would be no more people with his qualifications doing these types of jobs. Technicians like Lucas would take over, earning a fraction of the money and, if the truth be told, probably doing the job just as well.
“So we create a simulation from the evidence. We gather all the perspectives, all the recordings, all the data and we create a perfectly convincing, perfectly real simulation for the killer to live through. For the duration of his sentence he will live out his own crimes from the victim’s perspective, over and over again, endlessly until he’s free to go.”
Lucas shrugged, “I guess making the simulation is the hard part? We just put the simulation-pad on the back of his head, right?”
The doctor grumbled to himself and smiled a pathetic smile. “Actually, computers do everything these days. We really just put the pad on the back of his head, as you said.”
Lucas seemed to feel sorry for the over-qualified doctor.
“Is it dangerous for him? I mean, do we need medical training for this?”
Steven shook his head, “Medical personnel already cleared him for the procedure. They rigged him up and now computers do all the rest. We just put the thing on the back of his head and make sure nothing goes wrong.”
Lucas started to grin, “And you’re a doctor, right?”
He sighed, “I have a doctorate in criminal psychology, behavioural science and sociology.”
Lucas grinned widely, “But I guess computers do all that stuff now, right? So what exactly do we do?”
“We report faults if there ever were any. If the simulation failed to run, we could do something, as unlikely as that is.”
They stood in silence for a moment. There was nothing else to say.
The silence dragged on and it was clear Lucas had something he wanted to ask.
“Are you going back there tonight?” he said with a childish grin on his face.
He nodded back, regretting that his colleague knew so much about his personal life, “Yeah, and I wish I never told you about it.”
“Hey. My lips are sealed.”
Doctor Steven Leftfield never enjoyed driving. He remembered as a child when his father had driven a car. He had used controls, he had foot-pedals, steering apparatus and buttons to press. Now cars didn’t even have seats that faced forward. They ran silently on electric motors, they glided along so smoothly that you could barely tell they were moving, and they had a near perfect record of safety. All the Humanity had been sucked out of being Human.
“We have arrived at your destination,” a generic woman’s voice softly spoke to him from the car’s computer. It roused him from his thoughts and he glanced around.
The neighbourhood was grim. Lights flickered around the dark-side valley and eyes turned towards him, staring with some dark intent. It was a place he had no intention of staying very long.
He slipped out of the car and looked up at the emporium entrance, it was a large, gaudy thing, lit with ugly pink signs that offered adult services to anyone with the funds to pay for them.
It was not his first time there and each time he felt like he’d left a part of soul behind, whatever soul hadn’t already been sucked into the computerised heart of this brave new world.
He noticed he’d lowered his head, he was trying to shrink down and go unnoticed as he made his way inside.
As always, it was lit dimly, with glowing red lights casting long shadows. It was little more than a bar with a raised stage at the front. On it, a woman was dancing, swaying provocatively but unevenly on her high heels. She was old, too old to be in that position, and too thin for a woman of her age. He felt a wave of revulsion wash over him.
“You again!” her voice caught him by surprise. He looked over, startled.
“Me. Again,” he agreed, stammering like a nervous teenager.
“Does your wife know you’re here?” Her lips pulled back into something like a smile.
He shook his head, “Can you imagine? If she ever found out, I don’t know what she’d do.”
She stared at him with her hollow, dead, drug-addled eyes, “Well, it’s none of her business, is it?”
He frowned but said nothing. He looked at her nervously, he brought his mind back to the point, “You know what I want.”
She grunted to herself and smiled a sarcastic smile, “Yeah. I know what you want.”
His car pulled silently up to the house, the only sound was the distant noise of gravel shifting beneath its airless tyres as it drew to an effortless halt.
He had seen movies, reflection of far off times when a man might have clung to the steering wheel as he contemplated what would happen as he stepped out of the car. But now there were no steering wheels, there was nothing for him to grab hold of. He was lost.
With a bleep, the door opened, robbing him even of a moment of quiet reflection before his short walk of a few steps to the house. He saw the blinds flicker through the door of the car, he knew she’s seen him. She knew he was there.
His shoe crunched down on the gravelled drive-way that led to his reasonably luxurious house. Where would all this be in a few years from now? His job was vanishing, sucked away by barely-trained technicians, who would soon, in turn, be replaced with artificial Humans.
Where did this leave any of them?
He looked to the door of his home as he slunk slowly, guiltily up towards it.
He had to tell her.
In the course of his job he’d seen many people, who were accused of many things. He’d often seen their lives on the monitor, often watched the torment they were put through. That was how all this had started, that was where he’d first seen her.
The door loomed before him. He would have to tell her, he knew it in the pit of his stomach.
It opened suddenly, snatched back by his wife’s hand. Her face was flushed red and her eyes were swollen from crying.
“I know!” she cried out, screaming at him angrily, “I know.”
He shut his eyes and sighed to himself. He hadn’t wanted it to be this way, he had hoped this would be a nice surprise for her.
“I know,” she said again, her voice cracking with emotion. “The computer tracked the car tonight. I know where you’ve been. I know what you’ve been doing. It extrapolated the data and told me.”
He hung his head and said softly, “I didn’t want you to find out this way. I’m sorry. I probably should have told you before.”
She was racked with emotional pain and just glared at him for a moment.
“I…” he choked on the words and then a thought occurred to him, that something wasn’t quite right here.
“How could you?” she spat the words at him and began sobbing, a fat tear rolling down her cheek.
“How could I?” he was confused now. “But I… I don’t think you understand.”
She levelled a pistol up to his chest, her eyes were thick with tears as she pulled the trigger. There was a flash and a loud crack and the last thoughts to go through his head were, ‘I didn’t know we had a gun.’
The flash expanded out and her eyes were bathed in light. It had been the first time in eight years that they’d seen anything, the first time in eight years that she’d moved at all.
She held up her hand before her, covering her face in shock, in fear of the bullet that was coming at her.
There was laughter, a voice somewhere in the distance, “Nobody is shooting at you, Mrs Leftfield. You were the one doing the shooting. Eight years ago you shot and killed your husband.”
Her breathing was laboured and bright blobs of colour floated before her eyes as she struggled to focus.
“Your sentence is complete. Eight years for murdering a man. Eight years for shooting him dead on the steps of his own home. It doesn’t seem very much, does it?” Lucas peered down at her but he was older, his hair was tidy, cut short and had begun to turn grey. He had put on more than a little weight.
“Lucas?” she stammered, her voice thin and grave. “Where am I?”
“You don’t know me, lady!” he told her angrily. “Your husband knew me. He trained me up to do this job. I liked him, he was a good man. He didn’t deserve what happened to him.”
She mumbled to herself, trying to make sense of it all, “But… But… I cheated on my wife. Steven cheated on his wife. I don’t know…”
Lucas shook his head. “He would never have cheated on you. Steven found your long lost sister after watching someone’s simulation. He was trying to talk her into coming home to you, to get off her nasty drug habit and into a rehabilitation clinic. He was trying to do it for you and, and you killed him for it.”
“I killed?” she huffed, panting breathlessly.
“And you only got sentenced to eight short years,” he frowned at her. “But I know computers better than I know people, and my job is to report faults. I’ve reported that your simulation failed so I’m afraid you have to go round again. See you in another eight years, Mrs Leftfield.”
She tried to scream as the simulation began once more.